The amanah of language in the politics of Muslims
The use of language has played a pivotal role in the popular uprising in Egypt. Islamic groups and secular parties, western governments and their media outlets have all played a part. Unlike the Wikileaks’ revelations, the US government’s statements about the sensitive future of Egypt and the growing number of politically unstable Muslim countries have become more like coded instructions.
It has become obvious to all what President Obama’s call for an ‘orderly transition’ has meant to the ongoing revision of US policy in the region. The US government is utilising every available moment to build a credible opposition party that will win any future elections and maintain the kind of ‘stability’ and serving of her interests they have enjoyed for the last 30 years of Mubarak’s rule.
The media have helped ‘oil the wheels’ by broadcasting or at least throwing a disproportionate amount of limelight on the demonstrators’ slogans calling for a ‘secular, democratic government’. However, in reality the vast majority of protesters clearly showed Islamic sentiments and called for both the removal Mubarak and a change of system. Even secular liberal political commentators have warned that the call for ‘democracy and freedom’ does not necessarily connote the meaning most western governments would accept.
After years of establishing cordial relationships with these tyrannical regimes across the Middle East, to expect western governments and their media institutions to behave any differently would indeed be naive. Most are absorbed on creating a narrative for the reasons for the uprising and the political will of the people by reporting ‘the facts’ through their secular liberal lenses. For example, there have been many articles claiming that this was a ‘secular revolution’ in Egypt, because people were suffering due to ‘the price of bread’. Only someone so blinded by their secular predisposition would overlook the fact that the price of bread is linked to the states economic policy i.e. the secular ruling regime, has only to do with the alternatives within the secular-capitalist model. This is at the expense of ignoring the people calling to remove Mubarak and his system with chants of ‘Laa ilaha ilallah’ and ‘Allahu Akbar’.
It is not difficult for Muslims to see the link between ousting Mubarak and his regime –dependant on the US for US$ 1.5 billion in foreign aid per year and lets its people go hungry – and replacing this decrepit regime with a government that follows Islamic rules of feeding, clothing and sheltering its citizens whilst not allowing itself to be dominated by external powers. Otherwise, it would make no sense that parties in Egypt base their ‘trustworthiness’ and ‘morality’ on their Islamic credentials and not ‘humanist values’. Religion has a large part to play in politics even if the western media try to twist the facts to their liking.
A similar ‘treatment’ has been given to reports that the Muslims in Egypt are calling for ‘freedom’. If freedom means the removal of western backed dictators, that the authority to elect its leader is with the Ummah, and that sovereignty is to the law of Allah (swt), then we will not find a single Western government or their media outlets offering a warm embrace to this definition. Whatever is meant by the chants for ‘freedom’ it can be said for sure that it definitely means freedom from Mubarak’s despotic rule and any other western backed leader, and a government free from western influence and control.
However, what is interesting is that the general feelings and thoughts of the people themselves and how this is reflected in their chants, slogans and banners and their behaviour towards the army and the security forces. Recent surveys indicate that Muslims want to change their current government to a more ‘Islamic government’. Research conducted by the University of Maryland (WorldPublicOpinion.org) shows that 74% of the Egyptian people wanted a ‘strict’ Shari‘ah law applied per their 2006 survey. Furthermore according to Pew Research Centre’s ‘Global Attitudes Project’ survey conducted in 2010 have presented similar results of 95% of the Egyptian people saying that it would be good if Islam played a large role in politics, indicating that public opinion has hardly changed leading up to the Egyptian uprising and contrary to western assertions.
However, the message the active political parties are giving to the people and to western governments are of particular interest as these different groups who are calling for the removal of Mubarak are offering to replace it with what they call ‘Islamic Democracy’ or ‘Shura’ and ‘freedom’. It seems there is a clear need for Muslim groups in Egypt to outline exactly what the Islamic system has to offer and how it would work and how it differs from the democracy and freedom the west have to offer. Sadly on this point, for some movements, the Daw’ah to Islam has become disjointed away from the question of how Muslims should liberate themselves from their western backed dictators, and what system of law to replace them with.
This has caused a grave misunderstanding in relation to whether the people want the democratic system that produces the likes of Mubarak or whether Islam has an alternative ruling system altogether. The responsibility for clarifying these matters and for spreading the clear message of Islam is the responsibility (amanah) of the Islamic groups. It is important to note that the language used by these Muslim groups will have an effect on how people think and how a party will rule and brings into question whether the aims are even Islamic at all.
It is clear that a democratic system, which gives rise to many parties who believe essentially in the same things, will obstruct this Ummah from realising its true Islamic political system (the Khilafah). The reality of democracy is not just a process of electing, it is a system found on principles that are a total anathema to the principles the Khilafah system is built upon at its peak, where sovereignty is to man and not to Allah (swt).
Our Messenger of Allah said: “The best struggle (Jihad) is the word of Justice in front of the oppressive Ruler” [Abu Dawud, Tirmidhi, and Ibn Majah] In contrast to this Hadith, what was the language used to speak to Mubarak’s government and his vice president, to the western governments and to the Egyptian people? Are they calling for implementation of Shari‘ah, an Imam or Khaleefah as the head of state? Are they calling for sovereignty for Allah (swt) or sovereignty with the people? These are important questions to ask as we are obligated by Allah (swt) to speak the truth with clarity and therefore we must use terms that are not alien to Islam. The point here is that even if certain terms are used with good intent, Allah (swt) has warned us not to say one thing and mean another. Allah (swt) has warned us that even if a term carries a positive meaning, if that term carries another meaning that is contrary to Islam, it is better not to use it. Allah (swt) commands: “O you who believe! Say not (to the Messenger) Ra’ina but say Unzurna (make us understand) and hear. And for the disbelievers there is a painful torment). Neither those who disbelieve among the People of the Scripture (Jews and Christians) nor Al-Mushrikeen (the idolaters) like that there should be sent down unto you any good from your Lord. But Allah chooses for His mercy whom He wills. And Allah is the Owner of great bounty)” [TMQ Surah Baqarah: 104-105]
According to the famous Mufassir Ibn Kathir and many other commentators, Allah (swt) commanded the believers to avoid the word Ra’ina when addressing their ruler and the Messenger of Allah (saw) because though it meant ‘take care of us’ or could be said in a way that could mean ‘our shepherd’, in a slight change of dialect or pronunciation it could also mean ‘you impulsive fool’ or ‘a proud ignorant person’ or other insults in the Hebrew language.
The people of Bani Israil in Madinah used to call out to the Messenger of Allah (saw) ‘ya Muhammad Ra’ina’ to insult him (saw), so Allah (swt) commanded the believers to abandon that word and use ‘Unzurna’ which means ‘make us understand’ instead. The purpose of this was for the sake of clarity and to avoid ambiguity or giving the slightest chance to misinterpreting what was said. If Allah (swt) is warning the ‘believers’ that they should not even use a good word (Ra’ina) at the slightest risk of conveying the wrong message, then there is no doubt that all Muslim groups must take note of this as their statements shape the thoughts of this Ummah. Changing the thoughts of the Ummah is the role of the group and is the means to bring about change.
Today, we have a situation where some Islamic groups and secular political parties alike call for social justice, human rights, ‘being in accordance with UN resolutions’ and ‘democracy is Shura’ instead of choosing more clearer words that express a meaning that is in agreement with Islam. The belief that terms like democracy and freedom carry an embedded meaning within them is in total contradiction to integral aspects of the Islamic ‘Aqeedah. Allah (swt) is sovereign, the ruler of the Heavens and the Earth and He (swt) has commanded us to implement the book of Truth which is al-Qur’an.
“And who is better than Allah in judgement for a people who have certainty?” [TMQ Surah Ma’idah: 50]